Category Archives: Fatherhood and venison jerkey

DEAR ALASKA

(fp note: since this piece was published as my submission to the TU Blogger Tour competition, I was selected by a panel of magazine editors, writers and other industry folks as one of the two writers that will fly to the Tongass this July and experience it firsthand.)

Dear Alaska—

I’m writing to you because I’m at a crossroads…and quite honestly, it’s about damn time we met.

You intrigue me, Alaska. You have for a long time. As a kid you were stories of sled dogs and Native people, hunting and fishing and smoked meat, caribou and salmon and grizzlies, rivers and mountains and daylight at night. You were adventure and frontier mythology. Life and existence and culture as pure and honest and close to the bone as the tendons and muscles under my own skin. I loved you for that—all of it—and held hope that there would come a time when I was able to place my feet on your soil and add my own weight to the heartbeat of your landscape and story.

Today as I write this, I read about the struggle you bear, as I’ve read for years now, and my hope to see you is even more intense. There is no way to feign awareness. Your story echoes from dirt road to marble hall. The burden of special interest and ruthless speculation carried on the backs of your precious and pristine resources, and my hope to join you is even more intense. You rise immense and proud and rugged and brawling, while the shortsighted reach into your heart and take and take and take shovelfuls in their never-full gluttony, and my hope to protect you is even more intense. Your people stand together. Your cultures stand together. Your mountains and rivers and forests and wildlife fight on, only knowing existence and survival in a smaller and smaller universe. And my hope to stand and fight with you is even more intense.

I read about the Tongass and her 17 million acres of spruce and hemlock and cedar and thousands of miles of pristine rivers and streams and breathtaking runs of salmon and trout. Your gem. A gracious open hand, sustaining her people and the world that extends from her feet. I’ve huddled and discussed over beers with others who have witnessed her beauty first-hand—like Beat poets wrestling with the philosophy of words and immortality—the immense value of her resources and her conservation. The importance of the Tongass 77 and The Last Salmon Forest and Southeast Alaska raising their voice in one unified and vital cultural song. I’m thankful that history has given us the wisdom to protect what we have in her instead of waking to suddenly find that we need to claw and fight to restore a fraction of what we’ve lost.

Alaska, I am at a point in my life where fighting for what’s important is not simply a good idea, it’s a necessity. Surveying the landscape of the next 40 years of my life, I have finally made that decision. My kids are old enough now that they have their own dreams and understanding of who you are. They talk about your landscape and your wildlife. They talk about going there to fly fish and explore with me, and my heart soars. They’re learning—and value you—because you are in our everyday conversations about the importance of respect and passion and care for the natural world we’re blessed to occupy. I think about the idealistic perspective I held at their age. At the end of the day, I know that my actions will speak louder and influence them more than any amount of talking I do. That is the point I guess, isn’t it. Our actions do matter.

It’s time we met, Alaska. I hope to see you soon.

Respectfully—
Matt Smythe

 

This is my submission to the Trout Unlimited 2013 Blogger Tour, sponsored by FishpondTenkara USA and RIO, and hosted by the Outdoor Blogger Network.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, In the woods, On the water

OUR THOUSAND MILES

I was elected and served a two-year term on the Canandaigua City Council back in 2009. My decision to run was based on my need to not only give back to the community I grew up in, but to help effect positive decisions when it came to the economic and environmental health of our lake-side community. I learned a great deal about the business of running a city in that time. Not the least of which was the fact that, at the local level, the hands of leadership are largely tied or are left holding the bag for a whole lot of unfunded State mandates and non-negotiable contractual obligations — all of which put an enormous strain on budgets for programs, services, capital improvements and economic development. Municipalities are expected to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less — people, money and resources.

When it comes to environmental issues or issues of conservation, cities are approaching new development,  infrastructure improvement and city-wide programs (i.e. recycling, composting and pesticide use) responsibly, and with as much of an eye to the bigger picture as possible: new parking lots are required to have rain gardens to help filter run-off; new residential, commercial or mixed-use developments must meet or exceed minimum green-space requirements; the establishment of, and adherence to, a strict turf and pest management program on all City-owned property; a separate recycling pickup from the curb-side trash collection. The list goes on.

Nobody likes tax increases, but for every project, program, service or ordinance that we have, a whole lot of others are put off — even when the need is dire — because there’s simply no way to afford them…and there’s just no meat left on the proverbial bones of the budget that we control (short of raising taxes). Things like replacing outdated storm sewers, crumbling bridges and roads, maintaining riparian zones along roads outside of the city and repairing heavily eroded sections of streams feeding our lake stay on the to-do-sometime list. Again, the list goes on.

Which brings me to my reason for writing this…

I recently had the good fortune of participating in a “Brown Bag Lunch Presentation” with a small, but esteemed group of fly fishing bloggers – hosted by Chris Hunt, National Communications Director at Trout Unlimited — the first in a series of phone discussions that will revolve primarily around conservation issues and efforts, but will most likely extend into other industry-related issues as well.

The inaugural presentation belonged to Dave Perkins, Vice chairman at Orvis, and Elizabeth Maclin, TU’s vice president for eastern conservation. The topic: the Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles Campaign.

If you are unfamiliar with the campaign, as I was, the goal is to reconnect 1,000 miles of fishable streams by repairing, replacing or removing poorly constructed culverts that impede the path of water and spawning fish. Ultimately, addressing these culverts will not only result in better flow from these important tributaries of larger rivers, which improves water quality, habitat the overall health of fish populations — they’ll help effect a positive environmental change in the larger watersheds themselves. Our watersheds. Projects are underway in Kinne Brook (MA), the upper Connecticut River (NH), the Shenandoah valley (VA), Big Slough Creek (WI), the Deschutes River (OR), the Bear River (WY), among many others.

In order to help ensure the success of the program, Orvis has generously committed to match donations, dollar-for-dollar, up to a total of $90,000. Give $100 and you’re actually giving twice that much. That’s huge.

It’s programs like this and many others that need our support — where private businesses and citizens (or public/private partnerships) are picking up the torch and getting things done. As high as we think taxes are, and as far as we think they should go and what they should be spent on, the uncomfortable reality is that there’s less and less control of that at the local level (and they could go much higher). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to hold our elected officials and City Managers accountable for fighting tirelessly on our behalf, being fiscally responsible and seeing the long-term — I am saying that the more we’re able to take an active role in conserving or improving our immediate environment and resources, the more we hold ourselves accountable for fighting on the behalf of our environment, the better.

Please click the Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles link in the sidebar to the right for more information or to make a donation.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, Poetry

GROWING UP BRAVE

A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the Summer ’12 issue of Canandaigua Magazine. 

I could have called someplace else home on several occasions.

My time in the Army took me to Germany, England, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia. College started on the hill at CCFL before moving through Texas hill country for a spell and then Brockport, finishing in Virginia as I chased my master’s degree with a new bride and eventually our first two children. But no matter where I stopped, the return address on my mom’s letters always served as a welcome reminder of where my journey started, and an open invitation to return.

My sister and I were born and raised in Canandaigua. The Chosen SpotHome of the Braves. So were my dad and his siblings. My dad’s dad had come south from Winnipeg in the ’30s for work. Fresh off the bus and wanting to remain “below the radar,” he picked the name Smythe out of a Buffalo-area phone book to replace his French-Canadian name, Terchone. After a stint traveling the carnival circuit in the south, he made his way back north to Canandaigua, married and took a job on the Midway at Roseland Park, where he worked his entire adult life. “Smythe” has been through a couple generations, so while we’re no longer under the radar, I think we’re at least legal now.

The lion’s share of my earliest memories are tied to summertime and our house on Buffalo Street, sandwiched quietly between The Daily Messenger and the Quayle’s—right around the corner from where we live now on Main Street. We spent long summer days in the sun with the Smith, Marafioti and Quayle kids, swimming, playing backyard kickball, riding bikes and—once dusk fell—staring into bonfires and chasing lightning bugs.

We’d watch the Memorial Day parade from the stone wall guarding the front of Woodlawn Cemetery and follow the crowds to Veteran’s Hill for the 21-gun salute and Taps. I used to spend entire days in the cemetery up to my shins in Sucker Brook hunting for crayfish and suckers from the 4th bridge all the way back to Pearl Street, and sit somewhat patiently for haircuts at Buddy’s Barber Shop. We’d lay blankets on the hood of the car to watch the 4th of July fireworks from Parkway Plaza’s parking lot or a movie on special occasions at the drive-in on Lakeshore Drive.

The old house is no longer there, but every time I drive by it I catch glimpses of its shape in the trees that still define the lot.

By the time I was old enough to have my own paper route, we were living on Prospect Street. With that responsibility came permission to fly solo on my 10-speed and haunt a newly charted fishing route. Tackle box in my backpack and spinning rod across my handlebars, I’d stop and see Teddy at Canandaigua Fishing Tackle for a couple new lures, spend a couple more dollars at Dee’s Donuts and then head for my spots: Holiday Harbor, the boat slips behind Seager’s and the overgrown outlet behind Roseland Bowl. The sting of Roseland amusement park closing was still fresh, but the fat bass and angry pickerel I caught on Daredevil spoons and Mepps spinners helped.

The powerful pull of my hometown nostalgia has grown stronger as I grow older. I’ve come to realize that there are so many things about being born and raised in The Chosen Spot that helped define who I am, afforded me the freedom to explore and gave me the confidence to try and fail and try again. Growing up here taught me the value of working hard for what I want, but also the importance of community, personal responsibility and giving back.

These are all elements of why I was able to get out in the world and (for better or worse) make my own way. Why I now coach the kids’ sports, served on City Council, started my own business and eat breakfast at Patty’s (when I can). They are why I made my way home after making my own way elsewhere.

Today, my kids’ summers are as full as mine were, with friends, lacrosse, hoops, bike rides and swimming. We watch the Memorial Day parade from camp chairs in front of our house on Main Street, but they have discovered the magic of crayfish and suckers along the same stretches in Woodlawn that my dad and I did as kids. We get to Kershaw Park early to claim a small patch of grass to watch the fireworks over the lake and JC Pennys stands where the drive-in once did.

The Chamber of Commerce now occupies the space that Canandaigua Fishing Tackle did before Wal-Mart’s arrival, but—again like me—the kids have started accumulating their own gear from birthdays and Christmas (and pillaging Dad’s tackle boxes). Dee’s Donuts has been replaced by Tim Horton’s and Dunkin’, but sweets are sweets and a stop there is just as special. Holiday Harbor is full of townhomes. There’s no fishing behind Seager’s, and Roseland Bowl and Lakeshore Drive have moved. But we still chase bass and angry pickerel in Lagoon Park.

The Canandaigua my kids know is different from the one I knew at their age, which is different still from my dad’s. But it is their Canandaigua. And while they may not realize just how valuable their childhood memories and lessons will be as they head out to make their mark on the world—and they may not completely understand just how big and wide-open that future is—they are growing up Brave. And in the end, I believe that will make all the difference.

Photo by Grant Taylor.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey

BALANCE

Cam Smythe was many years and many miles from his small-town childhood in the woods and water of Upstate NY. The quick smile, quiet confidence and thoughtful, inquisitive nature he had as a kid translated into a personality that put everyone around him at ease as an adult. Cam’s earliest memories were of fishing with his dad for early-summer bass from a canoe, calling geese from ground blinds tucked in late-season corn-stubble and toting a backpack full of Bowhunter, Field & Stream, Trout and Fly Rod & Reel to school for grade-school show-and-tell. They had stayed as sharp in his head as the first girl he kissed and the smell of the lilacs in her parent’s backyard. He had a mind that valued those details. They all mattered, even the fleeting ones.

His dad, a freelance writer and life-long outdoorsman, had always stressed the importance of good stewardship when it came to the land they hunted and the water they fished. Nature knows how to take care of itself, son. It has a way of finding its own balance. But when humans push the resource too hard – when they don’t respect the value of what they have – then nature needs good people to stand up for it.

Eventually, Cam’s fly fishing interests expanded to pretty much any species that swam in any of the lakes, ponds, rivers and streams that were within biking-distance of his parent’s house. With this new territory also came the realization of just how poorly people treated the water he was fishing. Trash. Worn, muddy trails and trampled brush. Fuel rainbows on the water’s surface. With each passing season, Cam internalized the value of his dad’s words more and more.

**

Four or five generations back, Cam had a great-grandmother who was full-blood Blackfoot Indian. His dad had told him how she lived up near Winnipeg after marrying a French Canadian, but that the Blackfoot Confederacy spanned from Alberta all the way south to the Yellowstone River. It was this land that the Blackfoot, Shoshone and other Native tribes ceded to the U.S. government with the understanding that they would retain hunting rights, which were eventually stripped away as well. In a way, this was Cam’s first introduction to the meaning of invasive species.

His dad’s gaze once fell on the Tetons, the Park’s southern sentinels, while on a trip west, driving north from Idaho Falls to fly fish the Henry’s Fork. He could feel Yellowstone’s pull in his soul, but never made it into the Park, even after being that close. Never got to see the immense expanses of open valleys and timbered slopes. Herds of elk, pronghorn and bison in their purposeful roaming. Never got to hold a native westslope cutthroat, perfect bronze-orange and flexing in his hand after falling for a hopper pattern. And with rainbows and lake trout steadily decimating cutthroat populations in the Yellowstone watershed since their introduction, it was likely that his father’s missed opportunity would be the fate of all anglers in due time. This weighed heavily on Cam.

Yellowstone was a place of myth and giant-ness to him. Even after 12 years of calling Ashton, Idaho home as a backcountry fishing and hunting guide, the Park was still almost unfathomable. It represented the original perfection of his country, its open spaces and wildlife, and the value of conserving those resources. It was where his quiet heroes, Native Americans and men like Jim Bridger, lived their simple, rugged and deliberate lives. Where the world existed in its gracious and unforgiving balance, and humankind fit where it was able. And where Trout Unlimited, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, Outdoor Blogger Network and others – his quiet heroes of today – work to raise awareness and restore some of that balance.

Cam had moved west for many reasons. From a very young age, he knew he’d head for big sky and big country to live his life according to his passion for hunting and fishing. Cam also knew that it was his responsibility to be one of the people that stand up for the environment and the wildlife, as his dad had said. He understood better than most the effect of invasive species and how they push native species into smaller and smaller areas until the natives and their resources simply disappear. While the genetics of his Native American roots had thinned through the generations, their spirit and the west were still very much in his blood. He was there to make a difference.

There was one other important reason at play though. Standing on the shore of Yellowstone Lake with his dad, looking out over the expanse of glass reflecting first light, he knew that it was going to be a perfect day for cutthroat on the fly. The first time since Cam had moved west that they were actually getting to fish for them in Yellowstone together. Cam watched his dad adjust his well-worn Simms ball-cap and smile over his last sip of coffee. Actually, it was already a perfect day.

This is my submission for the Trout UnlimitedSimmsYellowstone Park Foundation and Outdoor Blogger Network – Blogger Tour 2012 contest.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, On the water

THE GIFT OF MEMORY

My grandma Doris passed away in ’93. I was 19 and stationed in Erlangen Germany, but happened to be on a month-long mission in the UK closing a major ammunition storage facility when I got the Red Cross call.

The mortality of family isn’t something on the minds of most 19 year-olds, especially one that’s single and in Europe with a steady paycheck, three-squares and permission to drink. Our own mortality is a slightly different story though. I spent a lot of time running from myself and my small-town youth during my years in the service. Armed with a brand-new I don’t give a shit because I could die tomorrow and I’m bullet-proof anyhow military mentality, I chose instead to run headlong toward the glorious temptations of underaged freedom. The reality is that if I did die around that time, it would have more likely been from stupidity, than the result of anything war-related. I came close on more than one occasion, believe me.

I didn’t make it back in time for my grandma’s funeral. By the time I had caught a Space-A flight back to Germany, then another one back to the States, I had missed everything by a full day. I don’t have any recollection of the time I spent during that short visit home. Like most other memories from my break-neck young-adult life, they have been squirreled-away in some dusty corner of my mind, where they wait patiently for a sound, smell or other inadvertent prompt to call them forward. What has remained with me is the hollow and angry feeling I had from losing my grandma, and not being able to be there for my dad. He had lost his dad to Cancer when he was 19, and now his mom. It was my responsibility as his son to be there, to stand with him as people expressed their condolences, to have him put his arm around my shoulders and be strong and find a joke the way he and I do in order to laugh through tough times. Even now, typing this, I feel it still.

Shortly after this past Christmas, my dad had stopped by one morning to visit with the kids and catch up for a little while. As we walked out onto the porch when he was leaving, he turned and pulled some paper out of his pocket.

So, for a few years before your grandma died, she had bought you and your sister savings bonds…for birthdays and Christmas and such. I figured that it was a good time to give them to you – they’ve probably matured by now. I also figured I’d give them just to you, because these were from your grandma to you. Of course, she wanted you to use them to become a doctor…

We both smiled at that one.

I decided to have a custom, glass fly rod built. I approached Jordan Ross of JP Ross Rods, and over the course of the next few months we landed on a blank, wraps and host of other beautiful components that would eventually compose a one-of-a-kind 6’11’ small stream rod.

My grandma understood the importance and value of the outdoors to my dad, and by extension, me. My dad was a hell-raiser growing up, but he also grew up hunting, fishing, laying traps, and generally spending as much time out in nature as possible. As a kid, I loved the time he and I spent in the woods and on the water. There was nothing more precious and I learned a lot more about character and what it takes to be successful in life while in tree stands and standing on the shore of Canandaigua Lake than I could’ve possibly appreciated at that age. And now, with kids of my own whose souls are immersed in the outdoors, I’m witnessing first-hand the legacy of those lessons.

Part of the whole running from myself thing in the service was a total departure from my love for the outdoors. Germany, England, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia – not once did I pick up a fishing rod, bow or shotgun. Which makes my decision to have this rod built as a gift from my grandma seem even more fitting. Back in ’93 I was as far from my passions as I could get. But I’d like to think that she knew I’d find my way back — maybe even adding a little divine nudge here and there — and that I would appreciate a glass inheritance that I will share with my young’uns, like my dad did with me.

I took the rod out this past Tuesday for the first time. Effortless comes to mind when describing how it cast, but the word does not truly do it justice. It felt as though I looked at where I wanted to cast and the rod simply exhaled and placed my fly where it needed to be. I landed two browns that morning.

Thanks, gram…

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, On the water